On Monday Lawrence Gonzi completes 22 months as Prime Minister, roughly the period Alfred Sant lasted as Prime Minister. Not that there was any doubt that this "record" would not be equalled and broken. But it is a convenient date to draw comparisons and contrasts. Rather more contrasts than comparisons.
It is said that comparisons are odious. And the obverse, contrasts probably more so. On the other hand, drawing comparisons and contrasts is one of the solid ways of arriving at the truth. On a philosophical level one may question the concept of truth, since absolute truth is hard to arrive at and what we call truth is somewhat relative. The Italians have a saying which we translated in our idiom that truth hurts. Naturally, I add, it hurts those whom it puts in a bad light.
Notwithstanding the above pitfalls I venture to point to some contrasts, not in any way exhaustively - this would need a deeper and more lengthy study - but touching on a few evident points. The most obvious is the deficit. Immediately the Labour Party won the reigns of power they cried foul. They claimed they found government finances in a far worse state than they had ever expected. They claimed that this was the result of years of overspending and resorting to ever increasing loans as a means of financing government spending. They also claimed that the government had resorted to early elections because of this problem. As if Eddie Fenech Adami ever stayed on until the last day, before or since.
On the other hand we retorted that the infrastructural projects we embarked upon were all essential for preparing the country for the then present and even more for the future. The hundreds of millions of liri invested in the airport, the power station, desalination plants, the telecommunications system, IT were all well spent and, as I asked in my last article, where would we be today without them?
We also stated that the situation got suddenly worse because Dr Sant, rather than Labour, convinced the electorate that if he were elected VAT would disappear forever. Nay, he underscored that this was the last opportunity for the hated tax to be axed. Many eagerly believed him and not only gave him their vote but reasoned out why pay a tax if it was to be soon taken off the statute book. Not only the hole became an all engulfing swallow hole but fiscal morality, not ever strong in our islands, was given a mortal blow. So much so that Lino Spiteri, the then Finance Minister, took concrete steps to try to restore it, even if it is always a thankless task.
The fact is that Dr Sant had sown the wind and had himself to reap the whirlwind. The end result was that the budget deficit was far more than the government had planned. But under Dr Sant it climbed to Lm125 million in his first year and shot to Lm150 million in his second, 12 per cent of the then GDP.
In contrast, Dr Gonzi's determination and ability to focus and successfully tackle problems has resulted in the deficit being whittled to Lm94 million or 5.4 per cent of GDP in his first budget and further slashed to Lm75 million in his second. Moreover, everyone is convinced, including Labour and its acolytes, that the deficit for next year would be lower than the three per cent benchmark. So much so that Labour spokesmen and fellow Cassandras are now saying that this is no achievement at all. They have changed tack and have in the past months attacked the government for taxing student-hosting families and, as recently as this week, the deputy leader is complaining about the compliance unit's severity. So much for fiscal morality!
But the people have grown wiser. They have the 1996 experience to draw on next time Labour claims it will remove any taxes.
The government is so confident that it has mastered the deficit that in this year's budget it could slightly raise the planned deficit from 2.3 per cent to 2.8 per cent. The government is in the enviable situation where it has recovered some room for manoeuvre. It used it to alleviate somewhat the burden imposed by the skyrocketing oil prices.
We are not there but we are well on our way. Indeed our election slogan that finances are borne by broad shoulders has been completely vindicated. More and more people are coming round to appreciate the Prime Minister's uncommon leadership skills.
Space does not allow me to expand on the contrasting achievements in employment levels, investments, the environment, education and a hundred other fields of government. Successful restructuring of the dockyards, PBS, Air Malta, Gozo Channel as well as in the private economy has not prevented the economy from creating new jobs.
We must stress that events have not at all been kind with Dr Gonzi. The world economy and especially most of the European countries on which we depend so much for our economic advance have been experiencing anaemic growth for years. Germany, Europe's economic locomotive, seems only now to show slight signs of recovery. Globalisation has started to hit us hard as illustrated in the closing down of textile and other old economy industries. Add to this the fact that our party has been in government since 1988, except for the infamous 22 months of Dr Sant's government. Some argue that people have understandably grown fed up of the Nationalist governments even though they are the first to concede that the experience is far more positive than Malta's dark ages of the 1970s and 1980s or Dr Sant's short 22 months.
The Prime Minister has succeeded in surmounting all these obstacles and others. It is due not only to his geniality, his analytical ways of attacking challenges, his powers of communication, his verbal skills, his capacity for hard and long hours of work. I consider as one of his greatest assets of leadership skills the way in which he always finds means of deflating a crisis rather than creating one himself. Contrast that with Dr Sant's record of taking up the deficit to unprecedented heights.
No one can ever say of Dr Gonzi what has been said of Dr Sant by a Labour columnist, though no fan of the Leader of the Opposition, that he is "Labour's problem and cannot be therefore part of Labour's solution".
Dr Deguara is Minister of Health.
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